afternoon that an armed gunman had entered the cable TV headquarters
of Discovery Communications in Silver Spring, Maryland and begun
taking hostages alarmed people throughout the Washington, D.C. area
and around the country. As law enforcement officials negotiated
with the suspect, posts on social media outlets inevitably began
arguing over the ideological motivations of the hostage-taker, James
J. Lee. Conservatives were quick to point out the suspect’s radical
environmentalist manifesto, while left-leaning sources disclaimed
any connection. News a few hours later that the suspect had been
shot and killed by police spawned a round of smug black humor, concluding
that he had been successful in accomplishing one of his chief demands,
a smaller world population.
verdict from the online world seems to be that Lee was simply insane,
even as differently motivated voices tried to pin the source of
his insanity on each other. If we take a step back, though, we can
look at the demands he made – which law enforcement officials
said "mirrored" those in his online manifesto – and
see the wider context of Lee’s beliefs.
His focus on
population control is clear from the beginning. Lee demands that
the Discovery Channel and its affiliates must "Focus…on
how people can live WITHOUT giving birth to more filthy human children
since those new additions continue pollution and are pollution."
On the topic of immigration, he recommends that we "find solutions
to stopping ALL immigration pollution and the anchor baby filth
that follows that" and in order to safeguard the future of
wildlife, he writes that doing so "means stopping the human
race from breeding any more disgusting human babies!"
While his rhetoric
is crude and offensive, that doesn’t mean his ideas don’t have wider
currency. From the time of Paul Ehrlich’s infamous 1968 manifesto
Population Bomb to the work of groups like Zero Population
Growth (first re-branded as simply "ZPG" and currently
known as "Population Connection"), the specter of unsupportable
population growth has been one of the environmental movement’s greatest
scare stories. It’s the kind of all-encompassing disaster that was
supposed to be hard to ignore – even if you didn’t care about
the environment, the pitch goes, you have to be worried about overpopulation!
You don’t want millions of people to starve to death or see wars
spawned by a fight over food and scarce natural resources, do you?
But how does
a concern over famines and resources depletion translate into the
vicious anti-human ideology of a James Lee? The answer is clear
– combine one old theory about the inherent limitations of mankind
with one new theory about the alienation of human beings from the
rest of the natural world. Lee provides us with all of the leads
we need when he demands that the Discovery Channel "develop
shows that mention the Malthusian sciences."
The Rev. Thomas
Malthus (1766–1834) is the godfather of all population scaremongers.
Malthus was an Anglican clergyman and political philosopher whose
ideas have influenced a wide range of scientists and thinkers through
the centuries. His central insight, however, comes from his "Essay
on the Principle of Population," where he posits that times
of prosperity encourage greater population growth, and that a larger
population will inevitably resulting in less food and fewer resources
for all, thus leading to widespread poverty and misery. Malthus’s
anti-utopian outlook was based on deep skepticism of the ability
of human beings to rise above their biological constraints and solve
the problems posed by limited resources and an expanding population.
It was Malthus’s fatalistic view of the world that would, unfortunately,
inspire generations of scholars and eventually help give birth to
the modern environmental movement itself.